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A Blog on Understanding, Informing, Empowering, and Influencing Global Publics, published by Matt Armstrong

In America? Smith-Mundt means no SMS updates on the President’s Ghana speech for you!

imageTo let the American public get updates to the President’s speech via SMS is dangerous and, presumably, equivalent to Al Qaeda and Taleban propaganda. No wait, those messages come through just fine so it must be worse than that and even Iranian, Russian, and Chinese Government propaganda. If you’re an American, you cannot sign up for SMS updates to what surely will be an excellent speech by the President – nor could you sign up for the previous much anticipated and lauded speeches – because the Smith-Mundt Act prevents American public diplomacy activities from reaching sensitive and impressionable American eyes and ears. If you’re in the 50 United States ("US minor outlying islands" don’t count) then you’ll have to hope the State Department’s Public Affairs

does something, but, call me a pessimist, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

See also:

  • John Matel says:

    Smith Mundt helps protect public diplomacy resources by forcing us to at least aim our programs at foreign audiences. It would be much easier just to default to the large and accessible U.S. market, rather than try to reach those harder to get places like Iran, Russia or China. We could get really big numbers right here in America and our success in reaching Americans would probably be popular among our political leaders. Before you know it, much of our public diplomacy would be targeted at key voters in swing states rather than foreign publics.
    We in public diplomacy really should not be in the business of providing information about America to Americans. That is not our mandate. The U.S. media is capable of telling America’s stories back home.
    I take your point about Smith-Mundt’s original purpose, but in the modern age it serves a different, but still useful and valid purpose.

    July 10, 2009 at 1:16 pm
  • Matt Armstrong says:

    John,
    You give an argument I’ve heard many times and one I’ve spoken to several (but not in depth on this blog).
    First, the firewall of Smith-Mundt does not protect public diplomacy resources because it does not contain the Congressional mandate to communicate. On the contrary, it limits your ability to aim programs at foreign audiences by a) creating an atmosphere of second guessing (e.g. “What if this gets back to Americans?”) and b) prevents Congress, Americans, and the rest of Government from knowing what is being done in America’s name with tax dollars which limits support and funding. Further, the nature of the firewall limits cooperation and integration of activities within the State Department, which to most outsiders, is bewildering. I’m humored each time I see or hear DipNote referred to as a tool of public diplomacy. Now conceivably, DipNote should be working with the rest of “R” (the public diplomacy *AND* public affairs part of the State Department) but this does not happen, largely because of the firewall *even though* public diplomacy and public affairs have, *on paper*, the same boss, Judith McHale. Of course we know that in practice this isn’t true. Why? Largely if not entirely because of the interpretation of the firewall. The result is a failure to coordinate activities.
    The second mandate was and is required: that is informing Americans. The media increasingly relies on public diplomacy to tell it what is going on. Notice the increased references to VOA as a source in mainstream media? The US media is quite pointedly not capable of telling America’s stories back at home as the recent escapades over Michael Jackson have once again shown. The Smith-Mundt Act, by the way, does include a “sunset clause” that essentially says that as American media stands up the government media will stand down. It is apparent American media is standing down.
    This is not the core of my argument however. The core is the geographic distinction which forms the basis of the argument that US territory is off limits implicitly assumes there is a means to identify and rebut, directly or indirectly, foreign propaganda in the US. It also ignores the reality that America is a major source for global news.
    The implicit and too often recognized result of this firewall by foreign audiences is the belief that because Public Diplomacy is unfit for Americans eyes and ears it is suspect.
    I am not, to make it clear, arguing that State or IIP actively broadcast within the United States but that the resources and materials produced for foreign audiences would be beneficial for those within our borders, Americans and non-Americans alike.
    An aside, I find it an interesting to compare public affairs at Defense which fears a “taint” if it gets involved with active engagement entities like Information Operations while State Public Diplomacy, an active engagement entity, fears public affairs.

    July 12, 2009 at 9:51 pm
  • John Matel says:

    You are right about America being the major source for foreigners about American news. I remember many times putting out a fire in a foreign media only to have the wind from America revive the flames.
    But this does create a significant ethical problem for us as government employees. You mention the need to rebut “foreign propaganda” in the U.S. I won’t mention particular media outlets, since I am not trying to provoke a fight, but very often the news that comes out of some media in the U.S. would be considered virulently anti-American if produced by a foreign outlet. But these are the opinions of our fellow Americans. Should we at the State Dept be in the business of “setting the record straight” or making a protest as we do in overseas media?
    I was in Iraq 2007-8. IMO, the American media got the reporting seriously wrong about what was happening there at that time. But would it have been appropriate for me to castigate various MSM outlets, not to mention blogs, for their bias? More to the point, what if State sent me out on a campaign to bring the “truth” back to America? Wouldn’t that mean that the power of the government, through one of its employees, was deployed in a political argument internal to the U.S.?
    Smith-Mundt can get in the way. For example, it would be very helpful to build contacts with foreign students at American universities. Presumably they will be among the future leaders in their home nations and will be seen as experts on the U.S. since they spent time here. But I don’t feel perfectly comfortable with getting rid of the protection that at least hinders politicians from tasking us as their campaign auxiliaries.
    I don’t think that public diplomacy products are unfit for American ears and clearly in this age of Internet and interconnectedness Americans can sample our PD. But having targets among our own people is a bridge too far, IMO.
    BTW – Smith Mundt produces fewer practical problems for us than some people think. When I was overseas, I never thought much about it at all because I never aimed at the U.S. My job was Poland, Norway or Brazil. That didn’t mean we couldn’t have productive contacts with American media overseas or with foreign correspondents in the U.S. I just never targeted the U.S. because it just wasn’t my job, any more than it would be to target the media in any other neighboring country.
    Back here in Washington, our products are aimed overseas. I understand Americans can have passive access to via Internet, but we don’t target Americans and that has been okay. We don’t actively give our products to anybody who identifies himself as being in the U.S. This has been a problem only occasionally concerning diaspora communities. On the other hand, it has removed the temptation for us to get our stats up with big numbers in the U.S. , as we might have done with Michael Jackson for example, and it protects us from being tasked to target our fellow Americans.
    BTW, Dipnote is not public diplomacy, IMO. I wrote a post for Dipnote (not as a PD employee) when I was in Iraq (http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/entires/index/iraq_colleagues). I believe it was the biggest Dipnote ever. They told me that we got more than 14000 unique visitors in the first week and more than 300 comments (most get 0-3 comment.) But this discussion was almost entirely among Americans. AND the reason it was so popular/notorious is because people thought (wrongly) that it was meant as part of the internal U.S. debate about Iraq. That is the way to get the numbers, but it is not the way we SHOULD.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:36 am
  • Matt Armstrong says:

    John,
    How the Government goes about refuting disinformation or correcting misinformation is a tactical decision, but the need remains and the act of doing so is not done to the best of abilities.
    There is a difference between PD targeting of Americans and permitting easy access to the content. Saying the Internet opens the door is, to be blunt, a cop out that ignores the serious dilemmas posed by the law that is not uniformly understood nor implemented.
    The root issue here is the methods of engagement. Hiding your activities from the territory of the US is nonsensical and self-limiting. It makes no sense to prevent broadcasts BBG foreign language services into the US based on the Act while VOA is increasingly cited in US mainstream media. We need to operate smarter, with better oversight, to out-communicate the guy in a cave and the teenager with a keyboard.
    In your response on the US media getting it wrong and the suggestion of “bringing the ‘truth’ back”, that was partly the mission of Public Affairs as even more so today with the restated State Public Affairs mission to

    Pursuing media outreach, enabling Americans everywhere to hear directly from key Department officials through local, regional and national media interviews.

    The law prevents the type of interactivity between public diplomacy and public affairs that is required in a global information environment. The place the firewall is most obvious, as you acknowledge, is DC but its effects is felt in the field beyond our border but it is also important to understand the field is here at home. The firewall, as modified in ’72 and ’85 in contradiction to the 80th Congresses intent, inhibiting access to content thus preventing transparency. Much of this could be overcome by better interoperability with public affairs.
    Congratulations on the traffic on the DipNote blog, a blog which is absolutely a function of public affairs. My comment about some perceiving it is a public diplomacy goes to the point that State has a lot of room for improvement in coordinating and integrating its activities. It would be interesting to see the percentage of followers of IIP twitter accounts and participants in Second Life meetings are Americans…
    There is a difference between censorship and targeting. If you / IIP attempted to get your stats up by broadcasting to the US, then you should be justifably castigated because your purpose is not to pander to Americans. However, what you’re saying and doing overseas with regard to a particular issue – even Michael Jackson’s death – should be readily available to Americans.
    IIP, ECA, etc each have particular missions and must be held to those missions. If Public Affairs starts to encroach on PD turf, then it’s the job of the Boss, in this case the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to do something because it should be in the interest of the Secretary of State and the President to effectively and intelligently engage overseas audiences, which R should be the hub for. Further, there are several oversight functions to hold the U/S and SecState accountable, one of which, the Advisory Commission, needs serious reforming. The worst case model I think you envision would seem to me to be similar to that of 1999…

    July 14, 2009 at 11:03 pm
  • Mo Gillen says:

    Matt,
    Do we NOT expect the much-touted White House communication team to provide information on the President’s engagements?
    It’s not IIP’s responsibility. It might be State PA’s, if/when the President is specifically acting in a foreign policy role.
    [And perhaps PA could use some of IIPs tools and recast them in an effort to let Americans fully "see" the activities of the State Department. This is not the same as just sharing the same products, and I believe it happens more often than you might think.]
    But it IS a White House PA responsibility to keep Americans informed about White House activities. And they seem to be getting that done. I wasn’t checking live, but what’s on http://www.whitehouse.gov now seems pretty solid.
    And State PA (www.state.gov)… is redirecting to the White House. As it should.
    - Mo Gillen

    July 15, 2009 at 5:54 am
  • Matt Armstrong says:

    Mo,
    Thanks for comment.
    Your paranthetical comment gets to one of the two significant problems here: “PA could [I'd say should but hey] use some of IIPs tools…” This would be great and I agree with this wholeheartedly. If you peel away the onions of PA and PD (or the white aspects of IO etc on the DoD side) then what you’re left with in differentiating PA from the rest is primarily tactics, techniques, and procedures. The distinguishing difference isn’t even geography because PA reaches globally. Getting PA to be more like PD or similarly having PA and PD work together is essential. Ssee for example the graphical relationships between PA etc in the report here http://mountainrunner.us/2009/07/sc_st_plan.html.
    Certainly PA does use PD products, some of which are “scrubbed” through PA before US release.
    This is more than communicating the White House engagements. The SMS example of the President’s speech is just an example. To the point above, it would have been great if either PA picked up the US audience and provided the same service or better yet to create continuity PD work with PA to create *global* coverage.
    The issue is what is America doing overseas and why? Relying on PA as it is, which denotes the reliance on an engagement strategy that is far from engagement and remains substantially limited in informing foreign diasporas here in the US, including those that rely on foreign media, is and continues to be dangerous.
    This geographic distinction we impose is unique among our democratic peers. If influencing the American public is such a major concern, then I suggest you take a look at the President’s continued use of his campaign email lists to promote the Administration’s agenda (which I receive many). For the record I don’t object to this use, I raise it only as an example of the odd focus on foreign policy rather than influence by the Executive Branch.

    July 15, 2009 at 8:12 am
  • Matt Armstrong says:

    All,
    there’s a point I realize I have reiterated here and has gotten lost in the details. A significant point in my attack on the firewall is that information and content that is produced for audiences beyond our borders should be available to audiences on the US territory. This is necessarily the same as broadcasting the content.
    It was the 80th Congress’s intent that what would become known as public diplomacy would be available to the American people through disseminators other than the State Department, specifically Congress, the media, and academia. They recognized the global nature of the struggle long before the internet and global diasporas like the which we have today.
    John’s argument about 2007-2008 “when the American media got the reporting seriously wrong” is indicative to why a guy in a cave, a teenager with a keyboard, or malicious stringer can beat the United States in a war of perceptions. We must actively engage the world of information, but this active engagement can be as easy as making information available.
    If you think that speaking to people within the US is to be avoided, then be sure to shut down the now-popular Town Hall meetings, the speaking tours, and of course the email by the President. It makes no sense that we treat foreign policy with some kind of radioactive gloves in a world were global is local and vice versa.
    In 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote, “We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.” He gets it. It’s about time we do to.

    July 15, 2009 at 10:34 am
  • John Matel says:

    Sorry I did not keep up with the conversation. I forgot another problem with our State computers. They do not refresh all the time. I am been looking at the old responses for a couple of days and not until I remembered to push ctrl F5 did I get the new stuff.
    I would not have added much anyway. I just don’t see Smith Mundt – AS CURRENTLY INTERPRETED – as very much of an impediment to our activities and I do fear the politicians aiming our efforts at swing states if they have the chance.
    You refer to my comments re Iraq and I think it is accurate. However, I am not sure how it would have gone over in the U.S. if State had been actively “debunking” the media on Iraq. A lot of such things are interpretation.
    Anyway, thanks for the discussion.

    July 21, 2009 at 11:19 am
  • crandieberry says:

    Matt, I agree with you. What’s the point of a democracy if you cannot choose your own source of information and use your own faculties to decide what type of ideas you develop and support?
    I don’t recall my mother telling me not to drink my water with backwash but informing me what that was… once I figured it out, I was smart enough to not do it again… YUK! Likewise, we dont need the US government to be our parent and tell us we should not listen to this or that. Propaganda backwash or not, we should decide on our own what information source we access. The smith mundt act has only hampered the government’s ability to effectively create a more cohesive message for the world. The law needs to be revised.

    July 30, 2009 at 6:03 am

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